Monday, June 10, 2019

An Interpretation Of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 120

That you were once unkind befriends me now,
And for that sorrow, which I then did feel,
Needs must I under my transgression bow,
Unless my nerves were brass or hammered steel.
For if you were by my unkindness shaken,
As I by yours, you've passed a hell of time;
And I, a tyrant, have no leisure taken
To weigh how once I suffered in your crime.
O! that our night of woe might have remembered
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits,
And soon to you, as you to me, then tendered
The humble salve, which wounded bosoms fits!
But that your trespass now becomes a fee.
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.

So I’ll for starters , and likely for finishers, heretically paraphrase this poem as I understand it.

The voice is speaking to his lover, dear friend, generally an intimate, intensely  close to him or her—I’ll assume him. He’s saying, “You once did me a very bad, a very heavy, thing—and we as readers are introduced to a past transgression that stands by memory and being summoned up adjacent to his own recent transgression. 

The notes you provided say of “unkind” that it denotes something “cruel, against the principles of natural kindness and kinship.” He’s saying, paraphrase, “That one time you did that very bad thing to me, becomes a friend to me now given the (we readers presume) comparable “unkindness” I’ve just done you. 

So there’s an immediate ironizing his relationship with whom he’s speaking to. For a rival friendship now arises from, is comprised by, exists in, the fact and memory of the past terrible transgression. 

He’s saying that knowing how deeply sad he then felt—“that sorrow”—and because of it, now  it imposes necessity and duty upon him—“Needs must I.” He must, as your provided notes say, “bow my head down as an act of repentance, or under the weight of punishment.” He would, he says, have to have nerves of strong metal, inhuman imperviousness, not to oblige that dictate that he so humble himself. 

But it is to be noted that while he acknowledges what he is obliged to do, he doesn’t explicitly commit himself to doing it. The first four lines set up contrasting imperatives and perspectives: duty—“needs must,” transgression;” sheer human emotion—“sorrow,” “feel,” “unless my nerves were.” And nowhere in the first four lines is there any apology as such or expression of genuine regret or contrition. Rather we have a detached sort of “framing” of what has happened and what ostensibly should be done about it. It’s cold, analytical and detached.

An idea of equivalency is introduced in the first four lines. It suggests an empathetic equation would be fitting. “I know how badly I felt when you did me wrong. So out of that I know how badly you feel now due to my wrong and out of that I know what prostrating amends I should make.” So, on this way of seeing it, “befriends me now”  is due to past experience leading to present understanding of what has to be done. But there’s a stronger suggestion that, in line with the ironizing and detached observation of what seems appropriate, “befriends me now” suggests the new friendship is owed to the poet being armed with something that he can deploy to defend and acquit himself.

He goes on to say in tone becoming just a touch querulous that if s/he has now been rent by his “unkindness,” the repetition of “unkind” deepening the sense of equivalency, as he was by his/hers, then hell itself, the worst burning suffering imaginable, measures the time spent in illimited agony. So now what emerges, on my reading of the sonnet, is the inversion of empathy, the transgressor emboldened to virtual impunity by his past suffering. 

So, “ And I, a tyrant” I read as a mocking deprecating of himself and perhaps a mimicking what his intimate has called him in his/her anger at him.  

But why a tyrant and of what does his tyranny consist?  

Tyrants by your provided notes were “traditionally arbitrary and headstrong in their judgements and relentlessly cruel.” A tyrant is literally “a cruel and oppressive ruler.” 

So what flows from this understanding of the word? 

The transgressor has the power because it is he who has caused such immense suffering by an act, as noted, “cruel, against the principles of natural kindness and kinship.” So, therein exists the cruelty. 

The arbitrariness, the headstrongedness, the oppressiveness reside in his refusal, a wanton refusal, considering how deeply unkindness cuts, how it against the very bonds of the human and natural grace, to obey “Needs must I under my transgression bow.” 

And don’t those same marks of tyranny, here tyranny in intimacy, reside too in “have no leisure taken/To weigh how once I suffered in your crime”? To weigh is to assess; “leisure taken” is time taken to assess, to get a proper, a calm, a rational, perspective on his past suffering, to come to terms with it, to get past it, to, as they say, “move on.” So here as well is tyranny in intimacy, the continuity of burning grievance now with a chance to get even. Yet another reason for the befriending now, now the two reasons for the befriending being a shield against present imputation and the sword of intimate vengeance. 

In sum here, he’s playfully cruel in referring to himself as a tyrant, revelling in admitting it.

He deepens his tyranny by noting and contrasting the alacrity with which s/he then, in the past, made amends—“as you to me, then tendered/The humble salve...—with his own headstrong refusal to, a refusal that defies, as noted, the natural order of human bonds and human grace. My sense is that he genuinely wishes it might have been different: 

O! that our night of woe might have remembered
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits...

I can see a view that holds he’s saying this cruelly and tauntingly, ever the tyrant. But I tend see him more being analytical and detached and maybe a touch wistful. He knows he can’t transcend his tyranny in intimacy. He knows he can’t get past how “how hard true sorrow hits...” He’s ever enmeshed in hurt, anger, grievance and wanting intimate revenge. 

In the last two lines are cast in mercantile language. They replace the language of human bonds and human grace with “fee,” and “ransom” abutting and resolving the depth of “trespass.” It reminds me of what Laertes says to Hamlet, who is a dead man walking, what Hamlet says back to him and my comment on it:

...Laertes, guilty of murder, seeks absolution by dint of himself as a victim, but cannot see clearly enough into himself to understand the magnitude of his own blame: “I can no more. THe King, the King’s to blame.” Of ‘noble Hamlet” he wishes to transact forgiveness, asking for it in mercantile language:”Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.” Ever Laertes, ever a lesser man, he offers absolution as a bargain: Hamlet’s death for Polonius’ and Laertes’ deaths will cancel each other out: “Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,/Nor thine on me.” An ostensibly grave and moving offer of friendship and reconciliation made with the luminous clarity only death’s onset can bring, this, really, is a facile morality. His bargaining traduces murder, guilt and complicity. Hamlet, who wanted to embrace Laertes to his heart as his equal and his “brother,” sees better. Rather, he accords to heaven what isn heaven’s and top Caesar what is Caesar’s in scornful rejection of heaven’s probity in such judgments: “Heaven make thee free of it.”...

As your provided note says, paraphrasing the sonnet’s last two lines, “My trespass, my guilt, my fee, redeems your trespasses of the past, and those trespasses of yours must now redeem my more recent ones.”

I’d say the theme of the poem, its idea as its glue, is something like the inversion of empathy, past hurt exacting revenge in intimacy as opposed to grace in intimacy. There are innumerable ways of encapsulating the theme.

I’d say that without this notion, or an alternative notion that emerges from a different reading, a reader is at sea with the sonnet, not really understanding it, not, so to say, in any competent relation with it.

Of course there’s much more to be said about it, a concentration on the specific poetics going on and how they as technique merge with the thoughts moving through so that finally form and meaning are one. But what I said will do, I think, for the issue between us about theme being some extraneous construct that doesn’t exist, save in the most self conscious works wanting to make an explicit point, a notion I reject and I believe here have demonstrated otherwise.

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